They were rescued together as orphaned calves. Then they went to live at separate zoos for seven years before reuniting as “teenagers” here at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Now, Pacific walruses Mitik and Pakak are moving out to the exciting world of a walrus harem to be with – and hopefully breed with – female walruses as part of a nationwide plan for walruses in human care.
The pair fly out of Tacoma this month.
“While we’ll miss Mitik and Pakak, it’s better for them individually and for the whole walrus population in human care to move to new homes,” said Malia Somerville, the Zoo’s curator of marine animals.
The move is part of a plan shared by the Walrus Conservation Consortium – zoos and aquariums interested in caring for walruses – to create “leks” or colonies of breeding animals in bigger zoos, while smaller ones like Tacoma care for non-breeding animals.
Mitik and Pakak, who are now both eight years old, have been living behind the scenes recently while repairs are made to their habitat. As males of breeding age, they will be paired up with female walruses in their new zoo homes.
It’s a move that has been in the cards ever since the “walrus boys” arrived at Point Defiance Zoo in November 2019. Keepers have been monitoring them daily as they mature. Since their arrival they’ve grown hundreds of pounds, and shown increasing breeding behaviors like play-fighting and vocalizations.
In human terms, it’s time to move out of home and meet girlfriends.
“With only 14 walruses in human care in the United States, this kind of collaboration with other zoos and aquariums is critical to sustaining the population,” Somerville explained.
Pacific walruses are a threatened species found in the Bering and Chukchi seas. They feed on clams from the ocean floor and haul out on polar ice to sleep and breed. While they are hunted by orcas, polar bears and humans, their main threat is actually climate change. As the Arctic ice melts, the walruses lose their haul-out sites and are forced to forage in shallow water, where the food quickly runs out.
While there won’t be walruses in Tacoma for a while, Point Defiance Zoo hopes in the future to be a home to juvenile walruses or non-releasable young animals rescued from the wild.
In the meantime, though, staff will give other Rocky Shores animals like seals and sea lions the enriching opportunity to explore the walrus pool.
Even the penguins will get some time in there, to allow renovations to their own space.
The Zoo will also continue its longstanding efforts to advance walrus research and conservation to help marine mammal experts and other scientists better understand these magnificent mammals.
“The more we learn, the more we can help wild walruses as they adapt to changing climates,” said Somerville.
Farewell, Mitik and Pakak!